An impassioned and often violent debate about President Bakili Muluzi’s desire to amend the constitution in order to stand for a third consecutive term in the 2004 president election had serious consequences for the press. A number of journalists were physically attacked or threatened for broaching the subject. An infuriated president decreed at the end of May 2002 that all demonstrations on this issue were banned. Shortly thereafter he lashed out at the "irresponsible journalism" of the opposition newspapers The Chronicle and Daily Times. The national assembly finally rejected a constitutional amendment in July.
The ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) continued to use violence to settle its disputes with the opposition press. A local press freedom organisation said in September that the ruling party had decided to silence a number of local journalists considered a threat to the government. The UDF vehemently denied the charge. A journalists was killed in August, at the height of the tension, but it was not established that his death was linked to his work.
Fearing the situation could deteriorate, the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) set up a legal aid fund on 15 October to provide journalists and news media with a lawyer if they were prosecuted.
A journalist killed
Don Kulapani, a freelance journalist and former contributor to The Chronicle, was murdered on 8 August 2002. He was in a bar in the capital, Lilongwe, when gunmen burst in and opened fire, hitting Kulapani. They then stabbed him many times, and stole cases of beer, music equipment and cash from the till. Kulapani died from his injuries. Nothing had emerged by the end of the year to establish a link between his death and his work as a journalist.
Three journalists physically attacked
Thugs burst into the offices of The Chronicle in Lilongwe on 22 February and abducted journalist Mallick Mnela. Editor Robert Jamieson followed and alerted the police, who ordered them to turn themselves in to the nearest police station. Jamieson said the abductors were members of the ruling UDF who were angered by reports in the newspaper that were critical of the UDF and President Muluzi. After being brought to a police station, Mnela was free to go.
Three thugs physically attacked Malawi News journalist Bright Sonani on 21 August, accusing him of criticising the government in his reports.
National assembly member Fidson Chisesere hit Daily Nation reporter Gideon Munthali in a corridor of the assembly building on 24 October, threatening to kill him and accusing him of destroying his reputation. Munthali had just asked him about a voter petition urging him to oppose the proposed constitutional amendment allowing a third consecutive presidential term. Munthali filed a complaint against Chisesere.
Three journalists threatened
Brian Ligomeka, a correspondent for African Eye News Service of South Africa, learned in early January that police were looking for him when they contacted a friend to ask where he was. He said he was "living in a state of permanent fear." He had been attacked and threatened in 2001, and accused of belonging to an opposition group that was very critical of President Muluzi. The police had accused him of writing "stupid stories"and the president and government.
Several thousand activists of the ruling UDF staged a hostile demonstration on 20 May outside the offices of Blantyre Newspaper Limited, which publishes two pro-opposition newspapers, the Daily Times and Malawi News. The crowd threatened two journalists in particular, Mabvuto Banda and Akimu Kaingana, who had written pieces opposing a third presidential term. All of the journalists shut themselves up in their offices until the crowd eventually dispersed without major incident. One employee was nonetheless roughed up when he tried to take a note of the licence numbers of the demonstrators’ vehicles.
Pressure and obstruction
Tax collection agents of the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) on 13 March 2002 stormed the offices of Blantyre Printing and Publishing (BP&P), a member of the group that produces the opposition Daily Times et Malawi News, and seized some of its vehicles. A few days before, the Daily Times asked why the president was giving special financial aid to the national TV station, which was damaged in a fire, when Malawi was in the grip of a famine. An MRA official said BP&P was behind in its tax payments and denied that the vehicles were confiscated for political reasons.
The Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) issued a warning on 13 June to MIJ FM, a radio station run by students of journalism at the Malawi Institute of Journalism. The authority threatened the station with withdrawal of its licence if it did not put a stop to "anomalies" in its reporting. This was taken to be an allusion to editorials about the proposed constitutional amendment to allow a third presidential term.
A week later, police intervened to stop a public debate on the proposed constitutional amendment organised by the Lilongwe Press Club. Those dispersed by police included journalists, politicians and civil society representatives. The police banned the Press Club from holding another debate on the subject.